Saturday, October 24, 2009

Trick or Treat by the Book

In 1976, I worked for a large book publisher based out of New York. What a wonderful job. I read books, drove a company car, and talked to the owners of book stores about our forthcoming titles. Not only did I get paid for this, I had an expense account.

Occasionally, I was asked to read advance copies of books and try to predict how they would sell in Texas. In two years, I doubt if any of the reports I turned in were as accurate as a New Mexico weather forecast. Frankly, I was horrible. If I liked a book, the author probably couldn’t give a copy to his own mother. And without exception, the books I hated not only sold well, but ended up as major motion pictures starring Harrison Ford.

I have no idea why I wasn’t fired, as I had the kind of accuracy you normally associate with a government agency. Unless the editors routinely did the opposite of whatever I said…well, perhaps that’s possible.

Meanwhile, totally oblivious to the fact that I was a black hole of marketing advice, my biggest problem was my expense account. It was too big. Seriously, the home office in New York routinely sent me notices wondering why I wasn’t spending more money. No one seemed to understand the difference between a 5th Avenue hotel and a motel room in the valley of Texas.

Padre Island at spring break is crowded, noisy, and expensive. During January it is abandoned. I once rented the Honeymoon Suite just outside of Corpus Christi for $14 a night. And the room came with a private pool.

I was expected to entertain, and I certainly tried my best. Unfortunately, you could take half of Beeville, Texas to the diner for a chicken fried steak and still not put a dent in a hundred dollar bill. Even if you took someone to the steak house, the most expensive drink on the menu was a bottle of Dr. Pepper; most of Texas was still dry. An exotic beverage was a can of Coors beer smuggled in from another state.

One day, a book store called me with an unusual problem. There was a brand new thriller out in paperback by an author who is still widely read to this day, and yes, I hated the book, and yes, it became a movie that you have probably seen.  In any case, the bookstore had ordered 40 copies but they had received 40 cases or 920 too many books.

At that time, a paperback cost about a nickel to make, hardly worth the cost or trouble to ship back. My boss asked if I knew anyone with a truck. (Yeah, that was a tough one, who in Texas would own a pickup?) My boss instructed me to take the books to the dump and dispose of them.

Impossible. I like books; I would rather have taken infants to the dump. I took them home and put them in my garage. 920 copies of the same book, any one of which was an insult to trees everywhere. This caused a little trouble in my home, my wife kept giving me what I call the Gregor Mendel look. This is the wide-eyed stare you get when your spouse suddenly realizes you will donate half the genes to your future children.

Ahh, but I had a clever plan. I explained to her that Halloween was coming and these books could be given out to the children who came to our door. At the time, we lived in a suburban area of San Antonio. At Halloween, hundreds of kids came to our door. This was a kinder and gentler time before we realized that children should be kept at home and locked in a closet for their own well-being.

Come Halloween night, the plan worked pretty well. Every kid who came to the door got candy, and a brand new paperback book. I gave away hundreds of books, and felt pretty good about it. Maybe it wasn’t the greatest book in the world, but it was a book. I was advancing reading and the love of the printed word. I was a hero.

These good feelings lasted all night long, right up to the point where I got into my car to drive to work. As far as the eye could see, up and down the street, books were in bushes, on rooftops, in gutters…

It took me hours to round them all up.

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